ECCO philosophy

General Approach

When studying the evolution of complexity, our emphasis is on the emergent organization or system: what is it precisely that the whole has more than the sum of its parts? In particular, our focus is on the intelligence of the system, i.e. its capacity to understand, adapt, solve problems, take adequate action, and learn from its experience. This is the perspective of collective intelligence, distributed cognition or the extended mind. We approach this problem with the help of the concept of stigmergy, i.e. a spontaneous, indirect coordination of actions, where the result of one action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action.

A complementary emphasis is on the dynamics or evolution of emergence: how do the interactions become gradually more coordinated? Which are the "forces" or selective pressures that push the system in the direction of increasing organization? Hoe does it self-organize and become cooperative, in spite of intrinsic obstacles such as uncertainty, conflict, competition and complexity?

This general problem is approached using a variety of ideas and methodologies from all the traditional disciplines:


Transdisciplinary perspective

ECCO aims at transdisciplinary integration, i.e. at the development of a unified conceptual framework that can be applied to problems in all the scientific disciplines, from the natural sciences to the humanities. As our name implies, we find the foundations for this framework at the point where the three approaches of complexity, evolution, and cognition meet.

The emerging science of complex systems extends the tradition of general systems theory, which sought to unify science by uncovering the principles common to the holistic organization of all systems, from atoms and molecules to mind and society. However, the classical systems approach failed because of two shortcomings: the systems it studied were considered as

  1. well-defined static structures,
  2. that are objectively given.

To really understand systems, you need to know how they have emerged and evolved, i.e. how they came into being and gradually developed their organization.

This brings us to the second strand of our conceptual framework: evolution and self-organization. Self-organization is the spontaneous process through which systems emerge and evolve, becoming ever more complex, more adaptive, and more synergetic. We see self-organization of a system as the co-evolution and mutual adaptation of the system's components. This process is driven by variation and selection internal to the system. Evolution in the traditional, Darwinian sense is then merely the adaptation of the system as a whole to its encompassing environment, driven by external, or "natural", selection. This holistic view of self-organization/evolution allows us to overcome the pitfalls of genetic or biological reductionism that are often associated with Darwinian approaches.

The other shortcoming of classical systems theory is overcome by noting that knowledge cannot be developed through passive observation of what “objectively” exists, but only through active construction combining a variety of subjective experiences. This brings us to the domain of cognitive science, which until recently was also stifled by a too reductionistic and static perspective. The newer approaches, however, emphasize the constant evolution and self-organization of knowledge, and the on-going interactions between subject and environment. This helps us to understand the intrinsic limitations, subjectivity and context-dependence of models, while still providing us with heuristics to improve our knowledge—however subjective or limited.

The integration of the three approaches—cognition, systems or complexity, and evolution or self-organization—points us to a wholly new philosophy of nature, mind and society. It sees the essential building blocks as processes and relations, rather than as bits of matter or energy. Their most important product is intelligent organization, which can be found at all levels, from molecules to global society. However, this deep metaphysical perspective is merely a starting point for concrete, scientific research with plenty of practical applications.


Theory and practice

Another unique aspect of ECCO’s perspective is that we develop and test our fundamental theories by applying them directly to concrete problems. The problems that presently confront individuals, organizations and society at large all concern complex, evolving systems, such as the global ecosystem, society, the market, and our own internal system of thoughts and emotions. Thanks to the success of classical, reductionist science, most of the simple problems have already been solved. The issues that remain are typically ill-defined, open-ended, with ramifications extending into an unlimited number of other domains, and constantly changing. Coping with these problems requires a set of new methods that take complexity and change as their starting points.

The advantage of the ECCO approach, with its high level of generality and abstraction, is that the concepts it produces are applicable to any system from any domain, whether biological, technological, mental or social. These concepts are applicable in particular to hybrid or mixed systems, such as the World-Wide Web with its technological, social, economical and psychological aspects. 

Unlike other high-level, abstract approaches, however, our concepts directly address problems and the processes that can solve them. Indeed, evolution is merely a giant problem-solving process in which systems are constantly trying to adapt to new circumstances, or improve their handling of existing situations. Cognition is merely an interiorization of this on-going process of trial-and-error and a registration of shortcuts that have proven to be useful for re-application later. Complexity is both a feature of the problems that need to be solved, and of the solutions that are most robust in handling multifarious and ever-changing demands.

Therefore, the ECCO perspective encompasses both the most abstract realms of ontology, epistemology and metaphysics, and the most concrete methods to solve problems in organizations, technology and society. These two aspects constantly interact and feed back into each other: practical experience in tackling problems suggest new concepts and principles for understanding complexity in science and philosophy. Clarifications and integrations in our theoretical framework, on the other hand, immediately suggest new ways to tackle concrete problems.

ECCO Worldview

What is a worldview?

For centuries, people have been wondering about their existence and place in the universe. These fundamental questions can be classified in six categories, each defining a particular philosophical domain:

1. What exists? What is reality?

Ontology: defining the constituents of reality

2. Why is the world the way it is? Where do we come from?

Metaphysics: determining the origins or ultimate causes

3. Where are we going to? Will the world come to an end?

Futurology: forecasting the future

4. What is good and what is evil? What should we strive for?

Axiology: a system of goals, values, and ethics

5. How should we act? How can we tackle our problems? 

Praxeology: a method for practical action

6. What is true and what is false? How can we know? 

Epistemology: a theory of knowledge

The answers to all these questions together determine a worldview, i.e. a comprehensive philosophical system, a coherent vision of the whole. A worldview gives meaning to our life, and helps us to understand the world around us.

A coherent worldview is particularly important in the current era of accelerating scientific, cultural and social developments, in which all the old certainties are put into question. The confusion and fragmentation associated with this often lead to pessimism and uncertainty, and the need for psychological guidance in the form of a clear and reliable system of thought.

Unfortunately such a framework is all too often found in fundamentalist ideologies, or in irrational beliefs and superstitions. Science should be our weapon in the fight against irrationality and fundamentalism. Unfortunately, contemporary science seems to contribute to the confusion by the avalanche of often contradictory observations and theories that it overloads us with. That is why we need to develop a coherent, new worldview that is solidly rooted in the most advanced scientific concepts and observations.


The ECCO worldview

Our ECCO philosophy tries to show how the different scientific and philosophical insights can be integrated in a coherent framework. This framework is based on the notion of evolution as a spontaneous force or drive for the self-organization of increasingly complex and intelligent systems. This evolution leads from particles to atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, humans, and societies to the emerging "global brain".

Let us summarize this philosophy by the way its answers the fundamental questions:


the most fundamental components of reality are actions and agents, i.e. elementary processes and relations, not independent, static pieces of matter. Out of their interactions, organization emerges. As these systems become more complex and adaptive, they start to exhibit cognition or intelligence, i.e. the ability to make informed choices. The fundamental concepts in our ontology are further defined in the Glossary of ECCO Concepts.


if we go back in time, towards the origin of the universe, systems and agents become ever simpler, until they lose any form of complexity or organization. The organization we see around us now can be explained by the processes of blind variation, that has been producing random combinations of agents and actions, and natural selection, that has retained only those combinations that are "fit", i.e. adapted internally to each other, and externally to their encompassing environment. Since natural selection or self-organization is a spontaneous, automatic process, there is no need to postulate external or supernatural causes or forces to explain the origin of the phenomena we see around us.


this process of on-going complexification and adaptation can be extrapolated towards the future. This allows us to predict that in the medium term conflict and friction within human society will diminish, cooperation will expand to the planetary level, well-being will increase, individuals will become ever more integrated with the socio-technological systems that surround them, while individual and collective intelligence will spectacularly augment. In the longer term, this increase in cooperation and evolvability is likely to expand beyond the planet into the universe. However, since evolution is a process of trial-and-error that is not accurately predictable, we should be ready for various unexpected problems and setbacks along the road.


the inner drive or implicit value governing all life is fitness, i.e. survival, growth and development. In the present human situation, this fundamental value can be translated as a universal and  sustainable quality-of-life, well-being or happiness. Evolutionary, psychological, and cybernetic theories allow us to derive a number of more concrete values from this overarching value, i.e. properties that are necessary for long-term well-being. These include openness, diversity, intelligence, knowledge, cooperation, freedom, personal control, health, and a coherent worldview. In the longer term, fitness implies increasing adaptiveness and evolvability beyond human society as we know it.  Actions that promote these values are intrinsically good, actions that suppress them are bad.


to maximally achieve these values in real life, we will need to overcome a variety of problems and obstacles. Cognitive science, cybernetics, and complex systems science suggest various tools and strategies to tackle complex problems, and to stimulate and steer self-organization so as to be as efficient as possible. These methods include feedback control, anticipation, hierarchical decomposition, heuristic search, stigmergic coordination, and memetic engineering. At the level of society, these methods define a strategy for effective governance, for the maximization of collective intelligence, and the minimization of friction and conflicts. 


in order to solve problems, we need adequate knowledge. Knowledge is not an objective reflection of reality, though, but a simple model that makes useful predictions. Different problems may require different models of the same reality, without any one being the "true" representation. However, models that make more wide-ranging and accurate predictions are intrinsically better. Cognitive science, cybernetics, and neuroscience help us to understand how the brain learns from experience and makes predictions via the self-organization of neural patterns, and the feedback between perception and conception, observation and theory. Similar mechanisms may be implemented as computer algorithms to extract new knowledge from unstructured data, and thus discover better concepts and theories.



Heylighen F. (2000): "Foundations and Methodology for an Evolutionary World View: a review of the Principia Cybernetica Project", Foundations of Science, 5, p. 457-490.

Vidal, C. (2008) Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?), in Van Belle, H. & Van der Veken, J., Editors, Nieuwheid denken. De wetenschappen en het creatieve aspect van de werkelijkheid, in press. Acco, Leuven.


Evolutionary Well-Being: the paleolithic model

by Francis Heylighen 


An evolutionary philosophy has direct implications for a happy and healthy lifestyle. By understanding how we as humans have evolved, we will get a much better understanding of how we can function optimally.

Natural selection has shaped our body and mind for life as paleolithic hunter-gatherers (HGs). Hominids have been living in that way for millions of years after they diverged from the chimpansees. Agriculture only appeared about 10 000 years ago in the Middle East, and even later in most other parts of the world. Therefore, our genes have not really had the time to adapt to the lifestyle of farmers or industrial workers: they still prepare us for a life of hunting and gathering.

This means that there is a fundamental misadaptation between our present lifestyle and the one that our genes expect. This discord can explain a host of so-called "diseases of civilisation": coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer, depression, chronic stress, anxiety, ADHD, etc. These diseases needlessly degrade body and mind, while significantly reducing our life expectancy and sense of well-being.

On the positive side, this insight now allows us to improve our quality of life. We first need to better understand how our paleolithic ancestors lived. We can then choose the elements of that lifestyle that are most appropriate to adopt in our present circumstances. As summarized below, there exists an extensive and quickly growing literature on changes in diet, exercise, and contact with nature that are inspired by the paleolithic lifestyle. Many of those have already been proven to increase our well-being, although further empirical tests are of course needed.


Life as an adventure

There is an aspect to the HG lifestyle that has received relatively little attention, an aspect that I have called "life as an adventure": the life of a hunter-gatherer is a sequence of smaller and larger challenges, positive as well as negative, with the main characteristic that most challenges are unpredictable, of short duration, and of extremely diverse type and intensity. In contrast, agricultural and industrial societies prescribe a highly regulated life, where tasks and duties are predictable, constant, uniform, and rule-bound.

While HG challenges can be very stressful, e.g. running away from a bear, falling from a tree or crossing an ice-cold river, this stress is typically acute, i.e. intense and of short duration (seconds to hours). The rush of adrenalin is followed shortly by a pleasurable feeling of relief. The stress of modern life, on the other hand, is typically chronic, i.e. of low intensity but long duration (weeks to years). Examples are waiting for an evaluation report, preparing a PhD thesis, or enduring the daily traffic jams. This produces continuously high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tends to break down muscle, suppress the immune system and promote obesity, anxiety and depression.

The modern approach to tackling challenges is based on formulating far-away goals, detailed planning to reach them, discipline and regularity in implementing the plans, and a strong sense of duty in order to keep on track and stick to the plan. This entails a constant worry about whether you are doing the right thing.

Hunting and gathering, on the other hand, cannot rely on planning, as it is impossible to predict precisely where or when a significant opportunity (e.g. prey to catch, or fruit to collect) or danger (e.g. a predator) will be encountered. This leads to a much more spontaneous, opportunistic style of problem solving, characterized by features such as intuition, improvisation, exploration, adaptation, and play.

There is plenty of evidence that this more playful HG style of living is what our brain was actually selected for, and what it is best at. Moreover, applying this lifestyle stimulates brain and body to further develop themselves. On the other hand, suppressing it, by sticking to unflinching rules and duties, produces chronic stress and its attendant health problems. This means that we would be happier, healthier and more effective if we could live more in the HG way.

That may seem naive and utopian, but the present state of our science, technology and economy perfectly allows such a more relaxed attitude. The strictly disciplined following of rules may have been necessary to build up the wealth we have now. But nowadays our technology has become so powerful that we can delegate that type of activities to machines. It is precisely the following of formally defined rules that machines are good at, while the more creative, "adventurous", intuitive aspects of problem solving are better left to humans.


The paleolithic prescription

Here is a summary of the life-style changes recommended to achieve the health and happiness of a hunter-gatherer:

1) eat plenty of the foods HGs ate: meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, ..., preferably from natural sources. These contain high concentrations of all the important nutrients that the body needs to grow and repair itself: proteins, fats, carbohydrates (in relatively small amounts), vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and fibers. No need to count calories: with these foods you will quickly be satiated, build muscle, and eventually lose fat (especially in combination with muscle-building exercises).

2) avoid foods that HGs did not eat: all sorts of grain-based products (bread, rice, corn, cereal, pasta...), sugars, milk-based products, most vegetable oils, and highly processed foods with lots of additives, such as cookies, doughnuts, sweets, or hamburgers. These foods contain mostly lots of calories, but very few nutrients, and often plenty of "anti-nutrients" (substances that tend to interfere with your metabolism).

Particularly dangerous  are the foods with a high "glycemic load", i.e. containing lots of easily digestible carbohydrates that are quickly converted to high levels of glucose in the blood. This leads to the release of insulin, which promotes the storage of glucose as fat. A chronic activation of this process produces the "metabolic syndrome", which is the precursor of most of the present "diseases of civilisation", including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, chronic inflammation and Alzheimer.

3) skip meals from time to time: HGs did not eat at fixed times of the day, and sometimes went hungry for a day or more, but then compensated by "feasting" with a big meal. The practice of "intermittent fasting" without reduction in total amount of calories has been shown to significantly improve a variety of health indicators, such as cholesterol and glucose levels, triglycerides, and obesity.

4) move regularly according to the principle of power law variation: plenty of rest, lots of low intensity activity such as walking, cycling or swimming, regular medium level activity, and from time to time a short burst of very high intensity activity, such as sprinting, jumping, or lifting heavy weights.

Avoid repetitive, enduring high-intensity training such as jogging or power training several hours a week: such overtraining breaks down rather than builds up muscle tissue, is unhealthy in the long run, and anyway boring and difficult to sustain for the rest of your life. Marathons and similar extreme exertions in particular are counterindicated: the continuing aerobic exertion uses up the proteins in muscle mass, floods the body with free radicals and the stress hormone cortisol, and gives the body the signal to store more fat as energy reserves for future exhaustion.

5) make your exercises as varied and as interesting as possible, taking inspiration from the kind of movements that HGs or children tend to do: climbing, throwing, balancing, jumping, crawling, lifting, carrying, wrestling, ... Instead of using exercise machines that only allow a single type of movement, use a variety of objects, such as stones, chairs, tree trunks, etc., to lift, push or pull: the variety of forces stimulates body and brain to become more coordinated, makes you better prepared for something unexpected, and thus increases your sense of being in control.

6) spend as much time as possible in nature (exercising or relaxing), or at least change your environment so as to make it appear more "natural" (e.g. by putting plants in your office, or a poster with a forest landscape). Dozens of studies on biophilia (our inborn attraction to nature) have shown that this increases mental health, happiness, and recovery from illness.

7) regularly catch sunlight (without getting burned of course): sunlight is necessary for our skin to produce vitamin D, which according to recent research plays a much more vital role than previously thought, e.g. in supporting the immune system, preventing cancer, and building strong bones. Moreover, lack of (sun)light has been shown to be a cause of depression.

This is particularly important in winter, when sunlight tends to be weak. The resulting lack of vitamin D and reduced immunity explains why the "flu season" typically extends over the darkest months.

8) expose your body to the elements: walk (or even run) barefoot, use minimal clothing or supportive material, take hot and cold baths/showers or saunas, don't be afraid to go out in bad weather... The human body is not only made to withstand these physical stresses, it is stimulated by them to become stronger.

For example, barefoot walking strengthens muscles, tendons and general coordination, reducing the probability of developing acute or chronic problems, such as flat feet, knee injuries, or backache. Cold baths have been shown to boost the immune system, while saunas promote the release of "heat shock proteins" that protect and repair damage in the body's cells.

9) don't be afraid of dirt: modern society tends to be obsessed by hygiene, reminding us to constantly wash, clean, shower, and disinfect. However, our immune system must learn to distinguish dangerous pathogens from innocuous germs and own cells ("self'), and to effectively fight the pathogens. To achieve that, it needs exposure to a variety of common micro-organisms. Without such exposure from an early age, you are more likely to develop allergies, auto-immune diseases, and an immune system that is ill-prepared for the really dangerous germs (the hygiene hypothesis). 

Moreover, typical products used for hygiene, such as soaps, shampoos, deodorants and antiseptics, are full of irritant and potentially toxic chemicals. Common soil micro-organisms, on the other hand, live symbiotically on our skin and in our intestines, helping to protect us from serious disease. Epidemics typically do not spread through contact with "dirt", but through social interactions (such as breathing in the air that someone else breathed out a minute ago), helped by weakened immune systems...

10) play, explore and try out new things: don't let your life be governed by routines, plans, rules or expectations, but experiment with new challenges and explore new places, ideas, activities and things, in a playful, spontaneous manner. The best inspiration may come from how children play and explore, always being ready for something new to try. This makes sure that you constantly learn new skills and are ready to take up unexpected opportunities, while increasing rather than eroding your sense of mental and physical capability. New challenges and a playful attitude moreover are a powerful antidote against boredom, worrying, and depression.

11) rest, relax or sleep whenever you feel the need: your body and mind need time to recover from the exertions, repair damage, and build new capabilities. If you can avoid it at all, don't force yourself to follow a tight schedule: you will not become more productive by working longer hours and constantly being on your guard, but merely exhaust your reserves. A good night of sleep, a relaxed game or chat with friends, or a diverting vacation will boost your energy and creativity, making you much more productive in the long run.

12) be in the present: stop your mind from constantly thinking about the past or the future—planning, worrying, feeling guilty or generally being preoccupied with anything except the here and the now. Fully experience and savour the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that surround you.

If this is difficult for you, you may find help in meditation or yoga exercises to quieten and focus your mind. Alternatively, you can pursue "flow" producing challenges (like most forms of involved play or paleolithic-style exercises). These will effectively keep your attention focused on the activity itself (but may leave you less open to other experiences).


The results of these interventions should be easy to see in a short time: more energy, less stress, stronger muscles, less fat, reduced levels of glucose, insulin, inflammation and triglycerides, better mood, more good-looking body, less illnesses, better coordination, more self-confidence, ... In short, you will become quickly and significantly healthier and happier thanks to the evolutionary paradigm!

Note that implementing all these recommendations at once may seem like a tall order. Therefore, you may want to go slowly, starting with a few changes here and there. This is no problem: any step in the right direction (especially replacing high-glycemic foods with protein-rich and antioxidant-rich foods, and shifting to a paleolithic style of exercise) will already make you feel significantly better, and thus motivate you to make further steps in the same direction.

Also take into account that your body may not prepared for some of the more drastic changes, such as high intensity exercises, barefoot running, or prolonged sessions in the sun or cold. Just take it slowly, step by step, so as to gradually build up your resistance...


Finally let's not forget to

13) care for the next generation: keep small children always in close physical contact with a caregiver (most often, but not always, the mother). This means a lot of carrying, cuddling or breast-feeding, and letting them sleep in the same bed (or at least in the same room). On the other hand, allow them to explore an play freely as they grow older and feel emboldened to move farther away. This nurturing but permissive approach is how HGs look after children. It is also the basis for the "secure attachment" that is necessary for their later social and emotional development, including their feelings of morality and compassion.

Keeping babies out of sight of a carer (e.g. in a separate room) is intrinsically very stressful to them, and absolutely unnatural from a HG perspective: paleolithic babies could not survive without continuous attention from others. On the other hand, keeping older children restricted to a "safe" place (typically their home, playground or school) suppresses their natural drive to explore, exercise and experiment and their need for contact with nature, while giving them the message that the world is an intrinsically frightening place. Plenty of studies have shown that unstructured play in nature is highly beneficial to children.


For more details on these recommendations, I refer below to a broad list of papers, books, websites and videos that develop these themes, and provide the scientific evidence. 



Good starting points are the following:

  • Arthur De Vany's site on evolutionary fitness. De Vany is an economist/complexity theorist who  applied his understanding of power laws to exercise, a very inspiring philosophy, as summarized in his essay on evolutionary fitness and an article in the Sunday Times. Unfortunately, you need to pay a subscription to get at much of the material.
  • Mark's Daily Apple: the site of Mark Sisson with a philosophy very similar to the one of De Vany and with tons of freely accessible material on food, exercise, health and life-style. The only disadvantage compared to De Vany is that Sisson is not a scientist, but scientifically his recommendations are sound and based on plenty of research.
  • The Paleo Diet: The site made by the team of Loren Cordain, who is one of the most active and respected researchers on the paleolithic diet and its benefits.
  • Movnat: Erwan Le Corre's "moving naturally/moving in nature" method of exercise inspired by paleo principles. Le Corre, described in one magazine article as "the world's fittest man", is not a scientist, but his approach is based on extensive experience and deep reflection, and convinces by the intuitive elegance of the movements he demonstrates in his videos (see below). Here's another magazine article on MovNat training and the paleo philosophy.
  • Evfit: reflections on health and fitness from an evolutionary perspective
  • Moral Landscapes: Darcia Narvaez's blog on paleo principles of child care and their importance for psychological and social development
  • Getting Stronger: a blog on the philosophy of hormetism, i.e. improving well-being by subjecting yourself to physical and mental challenges
  • For a quick introduction check this popular magazine article on the "evolutionary fitness" movement.


The following are books intended for a wide audience, without a lot of scientific detail:


Scientific publications

For the scientific evidence behind these recommendations, here are some of the many references:

Paleolithic well-being

Contact with nature

Paleolithic lifestyle, exercise and health

Paleolithic diet

 Paleolithic Child-Care

  • McKenna, J. J, and T. McDade. 2005. Why babies should never sleep alone: A review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding. Paediatric respiratory reviews 6, no. 2: 134–152.  
  • Schön, R. A, M. Silvén. 2007. Natural Parenting―Back to Basics in Infant Care. Evolutionary Psychology 5, no. 1: 102–183. 
  • Ball, H. 2008. Evolutionary Paediatrics. Medicine and evolution: current applications, future prospects.   
  • Hewlett B.S. and M.E. Lamb, 2005. Hunter-gatherer childhoods: evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives, Aldine, New Brunswick, NJ (2005).
  • Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (2011). The Value of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness for Gauging Children’s Well-Being. in: Human Nature, Early Experience and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, New York: Oxford University Press. (Manuscript in preparation.)<!--StartFragment--> <!--EndFragment-->

Benefits of challenge, exposure and adventure 

  • Kyriazis M. (2010.). Nonlinear Stimulation and Hormesis in Human Aging: Practical Examples and Action Mechanisms. Rejuvenation Research, 347–351.
  • Neill, J. T. (2008). Enhancing life effectiveness: the impacts of outdoor education programs. PhD Thesis, University of Western Sydney.  
  • Neill, J. T., & Dias, K. L. (2001). Adventure education and resilience: The double-edged sword. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 1(2), 35–42.
  • Richardson, E. D. (1998). Adventure-based therapy and self-efficacy theory: Test of a treatment model for late adolescents with depressive symptomatology. PhD Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute.  
  • Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


Here are the breathtakingly beautiful videos of Erwan Le Corre (best watched in high definition), illustrating the Paleolithic lifestyle with just images and music.


Here is the first part of the 1980 movie "The Gods Must be Crazy", a humorous look at the contrast between the HG life of the Kalahari Bushmen and modern society:

Happiness vs. Long-term Advancement?


It is a common assumption, being stressed in many religions and political systems, that individual happiness should be sacrificed for the "greater good" (whether of the group, society, humanity as a whole, or some higher-order emergent system such as the planet or the global brain). The logic of preferring global, collective, long-term solutions over local, individual, short-term ones appears inexorable, especially from a systemic-evolutionary perspective. However, the implicit assumption behind  this form of moral reasoning is much less obvious: that individual happiness would be intrinsically inconsistent, or in competition, with the greater good.


What we have learned from studying happiness, both theoretically via evolutionary theory, psychology and cybernetics, and empirically by analysing vast amounts of data on what makes people happy, is that those two perspectives, local and global, are surprisingly consonant. In other words, what is good for the whole tends to be good for the individual components, and vice-versa.


The most fundamental reason is that happiness is an evolved, biological signal that tells us whether things are going in the right direction. If that signal were systematically off-mark, we would be constantly making wrong decisions, engaging in behaviors that are ultimately deleterious for individuals, groups, and species. This means that we would be quickly eliminated by natural selection.


Of course, we all know cases in which biological signals are off-mark, because they were selected for circumstances very different from the present ones. Most extremely, a heroin addict who gets a new shot will get a very strong positive signal of pleasure, even though his habit is likely to kill him in the medium term. However, there is a difference between immediate, short-term signals such as pleasure and pain, and the much broader, long-term "happiness".


Let me emphasize the essential difference between happiness and pleasure. Because of physiological saturation mechanisms, pleasure is a state that cannot be sustained: whatever the pleasure you derive from eating a good meal when you are hungry, once your belly is full, the pleasure dissipates--however much you try to eat additionally. The more intense pleasure of an orgasm is even more short-lived, and cannot be repeated more than once or twice a day.


Happiness, on the other hand, is often defined as the balance of pleasure and pain over an extended period. Another common measure is life satisfaction, i.e. the degree to which you are pleased with your life as a whole. Because of the saturation mechanisms above, there is no easy way to increase happiness by increasing the amount of pleasure you get. Most methods to artificially increase pleasure, such as heroin, overeating, or sex addiction, not only fail in extending pleasure beyond the natural saturation point, they create pain, displeasure or stress as side effects, meaning that the overall balance becomes negative.


Empirical studies find that the successful pursuit of happiness is actually antithetical to such instant gratification. Happiness depends on your overall life or activity pattern, i.e. the way you interact with the people and environment around you. Happy people are those that are autonomous, free, feel in control, are involved in social groups and projects, have a sense of purpose or goal-directedness, feel part of a larger whole, get the material and social support they need... All of these require investment of energy for the long term and broad scale, not immediate, individual satisfaction.


The simplest and in many ways most coherent model of happiness is Csikszentmihalyi's notion of flow, which requires three things: goal-directedness, feedback, and challenges matching skills. However, flow only covers short-term activities, such as playing or performing a sport. What it still lacks is the requirement that the goals should be meaningful or satisfactory in the long term: you can get a lot of satisfaction from playing computer games or climbing mountains, but in the end that hardly  improves your overall situation.


If now you add the empirical criteria that characterize happy societies (health, wealth, freedom, education, equality, social participation, sense of larger purpose, etc.), you get a pretty concrete picture of how you can make individuals happy, but in such a way that society too maximizes its well-being and long term evolutionary fitness.


Indeed, the essence of flow is to continuously increase your skills in tackling problems, so as to be maximally in control in whatever difficulty is thrown at you. There is no endpoint to this process: it is truly evolutionary, focused on continuing self-improvement (or what Maslow calls "self-actualization"). Therefore, maximizing individuals' happiness here and now seems to be a good strategy for maximizing the "evolvability" (to use John Stewart's term ) and cooperativeness of society.


What makes it even better as a strategy is that:


  •  happiness is a very attractive goal that is almost ideal for motivating people to follow the precepts;
  •  happy people simply function better than unhappy people: they live longer, they are healthier, more resilient, more open-minded, more creative, less anxious, more altruistic, more inclined to think for the long term, less inclined to conflict, etc. Therefore, they will be more effective in implementing long-term strategies for global progress.


While this may seem almost too good to be true, it is important to remember the remaining obstacles to achieving this ideal.


The most obvious obstacle is that many people, especially in the Third World, still don't have the necessary material means to satisfy their most basic, physical needs, such as health and nutrition. However, global society is evolving at a quick enough pace to tackle all these problems in a relatively short future. (Actually, we already have the means to tackle them here and now, if only we had the political will and an efficient system of governance for implementing it).


The more difficult obstacle is that most people have not yet understood (and even less implemented) the difference between happiness (in the sense of sustainable well-being as sketched above) and quick gratification. That is why they still invest most of their energy in mindless consumption, competition for status, and cheap thrills (such as most TV programs offer). Csikszentmihalyi and others have convincingly argued that these activities produce the exact opposite of happiness (independently of them moreover being bad for the planet). John Stewart's recent research on the "future evolution of consciousness" addresses this problem, among others by exploring techniques from Buddhism to teach people how to detach themselves from their drives for quick gratification.


Maslow's theory of self-actualization gives us even more reason to be optimistic. It states that as basic needs are better satisfied during childhood, they stop controlling behavior during adulthood, thus enabling and inciting people to explore their "higher" needs of personal development and self-actualization (which are in practive synonymous to happiness as I sketched it). This means that as society further develops economically and especially socially, what John calls "evolutionary consciousness" will come more easily and naturally to people, without the need for them to follow strict disciplines like the ones prescibed by Buddhism...

Glossary of ECCO Concepts

This is a first draft of a glossary defining the most fundamental concepts of the ECCO ontology. Eventually, this glossary should evolve into a kind of semantic network of nodes (concepts) connected by links (relationships) of different types.

The present draft focuses on the concepts that are unique, or at least typical, for the ECCO world view, which centers around the self-organization of agent collectives. In our research, we make use of many other concepts from the domains of complexity, cybernetics, evolution and cognition, such as: feedback, control, emergence, hierarchy, chaos, non-linearity, etc. However, most of these concepts have already been defined elsewhere, in our work (e.g. Gershenson & Heylighen (2004): How can we think the complex?) and the one of others. They will therefore be added to the Glossary later.


Agents and Evolution


a change in the state of the world governed by a causal relationship. This cause-effect relation can be represented as a condition -> action rule: whenever a certain condition (state of affairs, functioning as cause) is encountered, a particular action (change of that state, effect) is performed, deterministically or probabilistically, that modifies that state of affairs. Although we informally explained action as a change of state, action is the true primitive of our ontology, and therefore all other concepts, including "state" must be defined in terms of action or derived concepts. 


The state of the world at a particular instant is defined by the set of all actions that could be performed at that moment. (If actions are probabilistic, the state includes the probability distribution of all the actions.) This maps to the more intuitive notion of state as the set of all properties that are actual or "true" at a certain moment if we remember that a property needs to be observed to be deemed "true", and that an observation, as shown by quantum mechanics, is an action, which typically changes the observed state.


an autonomous, persistent producer of actions. Agents can be people, animals, robots, organizations, cells, or even molecules. Agents have preferences for certain actions over others, in the sense that when offered a choice they are more likely to perform the "preferred" actions. Preference functions like a gradient or force field that pushes the agent in a particular direction.


an end state or "attractor" to which an agent's actions lead, i.e. a state where the preference is for not further changing the state. For a physical object, the implicit goal is to minimize potential energy or free energy (this is equivalent to maximizing equilibrium or stability). For a living organism the implicit goal is to maximize fitness, i.e. survival and reproduction.


a measure of the "success" of an action, i.e. the degree to which the action has made the agent advance towards its goals; the amount of "reward", "benefit" or "satisfaction" that an agent obtains from an action. When confronted with different options for actions, agents will normally choose the one from which they expect the highest utility.


the amount of utility consumed or wasted by performing an action. An action normally uses energy, and some of this energy will be wasted or dissipated and therefore no longer be available to perform further actions.


an action that is not produced by a (goal-directed) agent. An example is the spontaneous decay of a radioactive particle, or the mutation of a string of DNA during replication.


an on-going change in the state of world caused by subsequent actions. Variation produced by events is in general undirected, variation produced by an agent is directed towards the agent's goal. However, since the agent merely has a short-term, local knowledge of the effects of its actions (bounded rationality), there is no guarantee that variation will reach the goal in the long term. Therefore, variation is always to some degree blind, since the agent cannot foresee all the consequences of its actions.


the selective retention of a particular state, because no further actions occur to change that state. Such a state typically corresponds to a (local) maximum of the utility function for the agents involved, i.e. a state that they cannot improve by further actions. Such maxima of the utility function define the "attractors" of the dynamics.


the long-term, directed change in the state of world towards higher overall utility which results from the interplay of variation of states and the selection of states with higher utility. Evolution can be seen as a search for utility based on trial-and-error, where variation produces the trials, and selection eliminates the errors.




the degree to which an agent is unsure about what to do or to expect. The larger the number of options that can potentially occur, the larger the uncertainty, and therefore the larger the amount of trial-and-error that the agent will have to perform before it can be certain to have made a satisfactory decision. Agents with high uncertainty will therefore be very inefficient in accumulating utility. Uncertainty is normally measured using Shannon's formula for entropy, which is based on the probability distribution of the different options.


anything that reduces uncertainty. Using Shannon's formula, the amount of information in a message can be calculated as the initial uncertainty minus the new uncertainty (after the message has been received). The value of information can in principle be calculated as the expected increase in utility made possible by applying that information to the selection of actions. In practice, this calculation is rarely doable since the outcome depends on the agent's intelligence, which is much more difficult to quantify.


given a certain information, the degree to which an agent is able to make good decisions, i.e. selections of actions that maximally accumulate utility in the long term. A zero-intelligence agent is one that selects actions at random. Intelligence has two components: knowledge (or "crystallized intelligence"), and fluid intelligence.


the ability, typically derived from experience or communication, to anticipate the consequences of a given action or event. Knowledge can be represented in the form of condition -> action or condition-> condition rules. The latter specifies which new condition can be expected to follow a given condition. Knowledge differs from information in that it produces general predictions or expectancies, applicable in many different situations, while information strictly speaking only applies to the present situation.

fluid intelligence

the ability to internally explore many different combinations of possible events and actions in order to find the one that according to the existing knowledge would produce the largest utility. This requires a mechanism of inference, such as the concatenation of condition-condition rules, e.g. A -> B, B -> C, therefore A -> C.


the acquisition, processing, storage, and use of information and knowledge to support intelligent decision-making


the hypothetical ability of an agent to always choose the best action. In reality, rationality is restricted or bounded, as an agent never has enough information, knowledge or intelligence to accurately determine the utility of all possible courses of action. Bounded rationality implies that there is always an element of uncertainty or trial-and-error involved in making decisions; no decision can be a priori proven to be the best one.

intelligence amplification

a process that increases the ability of an agent to make good decisions. Intelligence can be amplified by providing more or better knowledge (e.g. an encyclopedia in which facts can be checked), by increasing the ability to explore many different possibilities (e.g. by means of a computer program that can make more and faster inferences than a human brain, or via drugs that improve thinking in the brain), or by some combination of these.



course of action

the trajectory that an agent would describe through its state space if left undisturbed, by performing subsequent actions that bring the present state closer to a goal state.


any change in the agent's situation that makes the agent deviate from its present course of action. This deviation can be positive (moving it closer to the goals), negative (moving away from the goals), or neutral. The defining characteristic of a diversion is that the agent has no control over it (although the agent may try to control its subsequent effects): it does not originate from the agent's decision-making, but is unexpected, coming from an initially unknown origin. Examples are a sudden discovery, an obstacle appearing on the road, an apple falling from a tree, an unexpected phone call.


a negative diversion. A phenomenon that, if left unchecked, would make the agent's situation deviate from its goals, i.e. reduce its  utility. Disturbances typically originate in the environment, but can also appear because of some malfunctioning within the agent itself. Examples are obstacles, accidents, encounters with predators, parasites or otherwise hostile agents, diseases, poor weather conditions, etc. 


a positive diversion. A unexpected change in the situation that creates an opportunity for the agent to perform an action that increases its utility, so that it can reach its goals more quickly or easily than expected. Affordances can be tools, means or resources (e.g. a phone, a hammer, food, someone that can give advice)  that help the agent achieve its goals, or the disappearance of obstacles or constraints (e.g. a clearing up of the weather, a reduction in the price of energy).


an action performed by an agent that suppresses or compensates for a disturbance, so as to minimize any deviation from the goal or course of action

regulation or control

the process by which an agent constantly minimizes deviations from its goals, by appropriately counteracting disturbances. Regulation makes use of negative feedback: deviations in one direction are compensated by actions that push the state in the opposite direction.


the use of known affordances in order to maximize the increase in utility they can bring about. Examples are harvesting fruit, mining for coal, cultivating crops.


the process by which an agent seeks for affordances, by trying out actions without specific expectation of what the action would bring about, in the hope that one of them would uncover an affordance. Examples are animals foraging for food, children playing, or people browsing magazines.

the exploration-exploitation trade-off

the difficult decision for an agent about how much energy to invest in exploration rather than exploitation. While exploitation of known affordances makes the agent advance to the goal most reliably, affordances can become exhausted, lose their usefulness because of a change in the situation, or lose their competitive edge relative to new affordances. Therefore it is wise to invest in discovering new affordances before the old ones have lost their power. But exploration alone is a too risky and inefficient, and must be complemented by exploitation. The general rule is that a more variable, unpredictable environment will necessitate more exploration; a more stable environment lends itself more to exploitation.



the process by which an agent constantly adjusts its course of action so as to maximally counteract disturbances and exploit affordances, i.e. so  as to dynamically maximize its advance in utility taking into account the diversions it encounters. Navigation includes regulation, exploration and exploitation.




a cohesive group of agents held together by a network of strong interactions. This cohesion distinguishes it from the environment, which groups any other agents with which there is a weak(er) interaction. If the agents in the system share a goal, the system functions like a higher-order agent.


everything that is considered to be external to a given agent or system, but that still interacts with it

complex adaptive system

a system consisting of many interacting agents, where their interactions are not rigidly fixed, preprogrammed or controlled, but continuously adapt to changes in the system and in its environment

collective intelligence

the degree to which the agents in a system collectively can make good decisions as to their future course of action; in particular, the degree to which the agents collectively can make better decisions than any of them individually.

distributed cognition

the acquisition, storage and use of information and knowledge distributed over different agents in a system, so as to support their collective intelligence


the substrate that carries or supports the interactions between agents; that part of the world that is changed by an action, and whose changed state is perceived as a condition for a subsequent action by another agent. Examples of media are air for acoustic interaction, the electromagnetic field for electric interactions, the physical surroundings for collaborative building. The medium is often the environment shared by the interacting agents, but can also be internal to the agents.






reciprocal effect of two agents (say, A  and B) on each other: the action performed by A creates a condition that triggers another action (reaction) from B, which in turn affects the condition of A, stimulating it to react in turn, and so on. Interaction can go on indefinitely, or stop when the final condition does not trigger any further action.


zero-sum interaction

an interaction in which every gain in utility for one agent is counterbalanced by an equal loss in utility for the other agent. This typically occurs when utility is proportional to the amount of "material" resources (such as food, money or energy) that an agent acquires: when the total amount of resources is conserved, the sum of gains (positive changes) and losses (negative changes) must equal zero.


increase in overall utility caused by interaction; characteristic of an interaction with a positive sum, i.e. a win-win situation where all parties gain in utility. This typically happens when the action performed by one agent to advance towards its goals makes it easier for another agent to achieve its goals as well. An example is the sharing of information or knowledge so that every advance or discovery made by one agent can benefit the other agents as well. Unlike material resources, information is not conserved, and therefore a gain for one agent  can be accompanied by a gain for the other.


the opposite of synergy; decrease in overall utility caused by interaction; characteristic of an interaction with negative sum, where all parties together lose (although one may gain at the expense of a larger loss by the others). This typically occurs when resources are dissipated or wasted during the interaction.  An example is a traffic jam, where enormous amounts of fuel, time and energy are wasted because of mutual obstruction between vehicles. The dissipation can be physical (dissipation of energy or thermodynamic entropy, because of diffusion or physical friction), or informational (waste of resources because of uncertainty leading to many trials ending in error).


the relation between agents involved in a synergetic or positive sum interaction. Usually, cooperation is assumed to be intentional, i.e. the agents act in the expectation of a positive sum result (now or later). If the positive sum interaction is unintentional, we may just call it "synergy".


the relation between agents involved in a zero sum interaction


the relation between agents involved in an interaction with friction or negative sum. Usually, conflict is assumed to be intentional, i.e. the agents act in the expectation of inflicting a loss on the other party. If a negative sum interaction is unintentional, like in a traffic jam, we may just call it "friction".

transaction costs

the degree to which utility in a positive-sum interaction is lost to friction. Even when the interaction overall is synergetic, some of the generated utility will be dissipated during the process. Typical transactions costs are the effort invested in finding the right partner to interact with, negotiating who will contribute what to the transaction, and making sure that everything happens as planned. According to some estimates, in our present economic system more than half of economic value generated is lost to transaction costs. The most fundamental source of transaction costs is uncertainty: since the agent does not know what transaction to enter into, what to agree upon, or what to expect, it will need to spend a lot of energy in search, negotiation, and enforcement of agreements.




the arrangement or mutual alignment of actions so as to maximize synergy and minimize friction in their overall pattern of interaction. It implies that two actions performed simultaneously or subsequently are selected so as to maximally complement and minimally obstruct each other. This requires a minimization of the uncertainty that otherwise would dissipate resources in needless trial-and-error.


the spontaneous emergence or evolution of coordination in a complex adaptive system. Self-organization reduces uncertainty. The driving force behind self-organization is co-evolution based on variation and selection: actions and reactions produce a continuously changing configuration of interactions (variation); however, the more synergetic a configuration, the more "satisfied"  the agents will be with the situation, and thus the less they will act to produce further changes (selective retention or preference for synergetic configurations); vice versa, the more friction there is, the more the agents will be pressured to intervene and change course in order to increase their utility (elimination of high friction configurations).


a relatively stable arrangement or structure of agents inside a system that functions to ensure coordination of their actions. This structure specifies the specific roles of and interactions between the system's agents. Its function is to maximize synergy and minimize friction (including transaction costs) in their further interactions. For example, in a human organization the different individuals each have their own responsibilities, and the rules of the organization specify who interacts with whom in what way. This minimizes transaction costs, since it is no longer necessary to search for partners, negotiate with them, or strictly monitor whether they do what they are expected to do.


a regulatory structure external to the agents that promotes coordination between them. An example is the system of roads, traffic lights, traffic signs, and lanes that coordinates the movement of vehicles so as to minimize mutual obstruction (i.e. friction). Mediation may emerge from self-organization (e.g. vehicles spontaneously moving to the side in order to let others pass), or be imposed by an inside or outside agent (e.g. a policeman regulating traffic).


a form of indirect coordination via the medium, where the trace left by an action in the medium stimulates the performance of a subsequent action that is complementary to the preceding action. Stigmergy is typically the result of the self-organization of a mediator out of the medium. It is probably the simplest way to achieve coordination in a complex system because it does not make any cognitive demands on the agents (such as remembering who is to do what when), and therefore functions even with agents of very low intelligence.

evolution of cooperation

the general tendency for interactions to become more synergetic through variation and selection, thus reducing competition and conflict